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March 5, 2010

Trial by Fire

There's not a single player on North Carolina's roster who knows what it's like to lose in Cameron Indoor Stadium, and that in and of itself could be one of its biggest disadvantages when the teams take the floor Saturday night at 9:00 pm in the ACC regular season finale.

For UNC (16-14 overall, 5-10 ACC), winners of two straight ACC games for the first time all winter, this year's team doesn't know defeat in Cameron Indoor Stadium mostly because five freshmen have never played on Duke's home floor---including one who's injured and won't get the experience this year either---along with four sophomores who played sparingly in last year's win over the Blue Devils, of which only two figure to play prominently in this year's outcome.

It's certainly not a situation of comfort saying this team doesn't know defeat in Durham.

It's a situation of utter unfamiliarity, save a couple of exceptions such as seniors Marcus Ginyard and Deon Thompson---the only UNC players with extensive playing experience in Cameron Indoor.

"There's no question that it's something we're very proud of (never losing at Duke), but we've just got to get back to remembering why we were so successful there," said Ginyard.

Thompson and junior Will Graves are both struggling with injuries and aren't going to be 100 percent for the game, which makes UNC's overall unfamiliarity with the extreme hostility of the Duke home environment even more substantial.

This is a dangerous game from a bunch of standpoints for North Carolina, and unless they come out fired up, running on all cylinders and resilient enough to take a few hits, it could be a rough night.

Duke is playing for at least a share of the ACC regular season title on Senior Night in Durham, where they'll honor Jon Scheyer, Lance Thomas, and Brian Zoubek.

None of them, of course, have never won at home against the Tar Heels---with Duke's last win in Cameron over UNC coming back in 2005.

Keep in mind that the Blue Devils (25-5, 12-3 ACC) are perfect in Cameron Indoor this season as well.

Those are a few very good reasons to think Duke is going to be pretty fired up to play this game.

Ginyard has been stressing to his young teammates---especially those freshmen who have never stepped foot in Cameron Indoor---to compete, above everything else.

"Really you just try to continue to tell these guys that the way we've been able to find success these past couple of games, one major thing is just the fact that we've been competing a lot---a lot harder and a lot tougher than we have been in the past---and so that's one thing that we know it's going to take," Ginyard said.

"I'm sure they've been watching some games that have occurred over there but they've obviously never been part of a game there yet," Ginyard added. "I'm just telling them it's going to be exciting."

Thompson, who has been struggling in recent days with muscle pain in his back, has been informing the young players the need to focus on the UNC bench and keep their ears closely tuned in to what the Tar Heel coaches are trying to convey over on the sidelines.

Given the noise factor in Cameron Indoor compared to most arenas, it's a dynamic that deserves extra attention against a pressure defensive team such as Duke's.

"You've definitely just got to focus on your bench and hear the things that the coaches are telling you," Thompson said. "It's definitely an exciting atmosphere, but it's not playing in front of as many as we play here at home or at other places because it's so small in there, but their fans do a great job with being into the game."

"I think those guys will be fine in that atmosphere," Thompson added about the Tar Heel freshmen.

Thompson remembers one particular event from past games in the venerable Duke arena---although it was a game played several years before Thompson even arrived at UNC.

"When Jackie Manuel was at the free throw line (back in 2003) and he was shooting a free throw and a guy stood up with a Speedo on and he sat back down. That's the craziest thing that I've seen (in Cameron)," he said.

"No (I've never been in Cameron Indoor before). I've heard it's pretty crazy," said freshman John Henson. "It's something I've probably never experienced, and I'm excited to go in there and have a chance to win."

"The crowd is pretty crazy and their fans are pretty crazy, so I'm excited to see that," Henson added. "I'm expecting a loud crowd and intensity. Everyone is going to be playing hard. Honestly I'm just excited. I'm ready to go. I'm ready to go in there."

Henson is trying to take the advice he's been getting from his older teammates and the UNC coaches about the on-the-floor dynamics in Cameron Indoor so he'll be a little more prepared at the psychological barrage headed his way by the Crazies.

"I think it's good just to know what you're going into," he said. "You're going to have to have that much more focus in the game while you're playing, because the crowd is not going to be on your side. It should be fun, though."

"It's easy to get rattled over there," said sophomore point guard Larry Drew II. "You can see the whole atmosphere and the whole environment and everything over there."

"When they do the whole 'fingers' thing and everybody is jumping up and down, it's like 'Stop!', but they never stop," Drew added. "Just go in there with some confidence and just know you can get the job done, and you'll be fine."

Henson, Drew, and the other young Tar Heel players have already played in a few hostile environments this season and didn't exactly dazzle.

They were overwhelmed in Clemson, College Park, and Atlanta, and dropped close games in Blacksburg and Boston.

"Probably Virginia Tech or Clemson (are the toughest road environments so far)---it's probably a tie at the top---because those are two of the craziest places I've ever seen in my life," Henson said.

"They (my teammates) told me told me it (playing at Duke) is going to top everything, especially since it's a rivalry too, so I can't wait," he added. "People tell me it's nothing like I've ever seen before, and I'm ready for that experience."

"It's probably going to be wild, but like I said I'm real excited, and I can't wait for Saturday night."

"I just think that the past North Carolina teams, when they've gone to Duke they've just upped their game. They've upped their whole level of play intensity-wise and just focus-wise," said Drew. "They've had on their minds that they're going to go into that place on task to just get the job done and go in there and get a win."

Although UNC was able to beat N.C. State in Raleigh and most recently Wake Forest in Winston-Salem, beating Duke in Durham this season is realistically an entirely different story.

"It's going to take an extreme team effort out there to beat them in their place and on their Senior Night," Ginyard said. "These are the moments that we wanted to be a part of when we decided to come to school here and play with this program."

"I just really try to get them excited," Ginyard added about his younger teammates. "It's nothing to be afraid of. It's just really something that they should be happy and excited about."

"Definitely it would be great to run their Senior Night. We've done that the last two times over there, so we might as well keep it going," said Thompson.

Like a successful prize fighter, the Tar Heels have to come out ready for the bell and withstand a rugged opponent Saturday night.

They have to be prepared, both mentally and physically, to take the blows Duke will throw at them and they have to be prepared to dust themselves off, get up, and deliver some counterblows.

The crowd of champions that recently left Chapel Hill undefeated for their careers against the Blue Devils had that killer instinct---and this group will have to bring it Saturday night if they expect to have any chance of maintaining the run.

"Just keep your head really, your poise and your confidence and everything that goes on mentally for you---just make sure that you go over there with a strong attitude," Drew added.





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